To Exercise or Not to Exercise: The Effects on Chronic Pain

Health Professional

A person in chronic pain most likely does not want to have exercise on the top of his or her list of things to do.   However, it is now becoming standard practice to prescribe exercise as a weapon in the never-ending battle against chronic pain.

Rest is seen as a major cause of deconditioning, which in and of itself, can contribute to chronic pain. Chronic, non-malignant pain is a sensory AND emotional experience.   It is incurable, but exercise can provide great assistance in lessening it, and lessening its impact.

Exercise can accomplish the following:

  1. Cause the body to release endorphins, natural chemicals in the body which prevent the sensation of pain from being transmitted to the brain, and which can lessen anxiety and depression, which themselves can magnify the pain experience.
  2. Strengthen muscles, which allows for less force being transferred to bones and cartilage, easing the pain of weight-bearing joints.
  3. Increase joint flexibility, which allows for less joint pain.
  4. Improve quality of sleep by lowering stress hormones.
  5. Increase the energy level.
  6. Allows weight loss, thus reducing stress on the weight-bearing joints.

Decrease the risk of hypertension, diabetes, heart attack and stroke.

Before an exercise program is initiated, patients should consult their physicians, so that they might be assured of the overall safety of the fitness program they embark upon.   It is important to gradually enter into such a program, to emphasize consistency over intensity particularly in patients with more severe pain.   And hopefully, as exercise improves energy and mood, patients will in turn enthusiastically look forward to their respective exercise regimen.

For most people with chronic pain, exercise will be only one of many tools used.   It can easily fit into a multi-disciplinary approach, which includes medication, diet, visualization, relaxation, acupuncture and biofeedback.   All these have the goal of rendering pain manageable.

But if pain is increased as a result of the activities a chronic pain patient chooses, then that activity should stop.   While there is nothing wrong with sore or tired muscles the day after a "workout," there is something wrong to have joint pain, or to have chronic pain made worse.

Patients with chronic pain should not ignore the effects exercise has on the sensory experience of pain and the emotional experience of pain.   Exercise can lessen both, and make life worth living.

Anything that accomplishes that surely is worth trying.